Socktoberfest Lessons: Customizing Socks

We’re celebrating Socktoberfest! This month, our tech tips will be all sock talk, all the time. In today’s tip, former knitscene editor Amy Palmer explains how to choose the correct size, as well as offers some suggestions on customizing socks to fit your feet.

There are as many different kinds of feet as there are knitters—short feet, long feet, wide feet, narrow feet, high arches, no arches. . . . But most sock patterns only come in one size, written to fit the average foot. So to accommodate the “un-average” parts of our feet, we knitters have to customize our socks. For example, I have long feet. In most instances, sock patterns work just fine for me, but I do run into problems when I choose a pattern that has a long row repeat or a set amount of rows built into the pattern.

customizing socks

To customize socks to fit your feet, first you have to study your feet. The key areas are the calf, ankle, arch, and the ball of the foot. With a fabric tape measure, measure these parts to the nearest ¼” as follows:

customizing socks

Measure the circumference of your calf about 9″ up from the bottom of your heel (most sock patterns call for a 7″ leg and a 2″ heel flap, making the top cuff edge hit the calf about 9″ up from the sole of the heel).

The ankle measurement can be tricky if you don’t have a helper. The best way to measure is to hold your foot comfortably in an L-shape—as though you’re standing up straight— and wrap the tape measure at an angle around the widest point, from just under the heel to over the instep at the corner of your foot and leg.

You probably know if you have high or low arches, but you also want to know the circumference of your foot at the high point of the arch. Identify this point in your arch and measure the circumference of the foot at that point.

Finally, measure the circumference of the ball of your foot, just before your toes start.

What Size Do You Need?

With these measurements in hand, you’ll need to do a bit of math to find your ideal sock measurements. First, review your chosen pattern and find the foot circumference of the sock. In most cases, the circumferences for the foot and the calf will be about the same, as they’re typically worked over the same number of stitches. Most patterns are written for negative ease—that is, when they aren’t worn, they will be slightly smaller than your actual measurements. This allows the sock to stretch over your foot and helps it stay up. The recommended amount of negative ease for socks is generally 10%.

To calculate your sock size, subtract 10% from your measured circumference. For example, let’s say your calf circumference is 9¼”:

Step 1. Find 10% of your calf measurement: 9.25 × 0.10 = 0.925

Step 2. Subtract 10% from your calf measurement: 9.25 − 0.925 = 8.325

Step 3. Round up or down to the nearest ¼”. 8.325 is closer to 8.25 than it is to 8.5, so we’ll round down to 8¼”.

The math tells us that your sock, with negative ease, should measure about 8¼” at your calf. The average sock pattern is written for an 8–8½” circumference, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble working with standard patterns. But what if your calf measurement is more like 10″? Repeating these three steps, you’ll see that your required sock circumference is 9″, which is slightly larger than most sock patterns. What to do? Adjust the pattern to work for your needs.

customizing socksAdjusting Stitch Counts in Patterns

Almost all patterns give you a gauge measurement: This is the number of stitches and rounds that the designer used to knit the original socks. In the Blackberry Jam pattern (shown at the top of the page), the original socks were worked in a moss rib at a gauge of 16 stitches and 22 rounds to 2″. The circumference of these socks, when relaxed, is 71⁄2″.

You can figure out how many stitches are in 1″ by doing more math. The gauge tells us 16 stitches are in 2″; divide 16 by 2 and you’ll see that there are 8 stitches in 1″. Since we need to add 11⁄2″ to our sock circumference to fit our sample measurements, we’ll multiply by 1.5 to find out how many stitches are in 11⁄2″: 8 x 1.5 = 12. To get a circumference that works for a 10″ calf, we’d need to add 12 stitches to the pattern.

Now look at the stitch pattern. The moss rib repeat is worked over 5 stitches. Five is not a factor of 12, but it is a factor of 10. The simplest fix is to add two more repeats of the stitch pattern, working 14 repeats of the pattern instead of 12. So instead of casting on 60, we’d cast on 70.

customizing socks

The ankle and foot measurements you took earlier can affect the way you work the heel flap and gusset decreases. Typically, an ankle circumference is one-and-a-half times the circumference of a leg and foot. If your leg circumference is wider than the circumference a pattern is written for, you’ll want to make sure your sock’s ankle circumference is proportionally wider, so that the sock fits comfortably when it’s worn. Working a few more rows of the heel flap will give you more selvedge stitches to pick up for the gusset, giving you more fabric to go over the foot; alternatively, working fewer rows of the heel flap will give you less fabric if your leg and ankle circumferences are smaller than the circumference of the pattern.

Adjusting Stitch Count: How does that affect the heel?

Of course, changing the number of stitches in the leg changes the number of stitches used in the heel turn. Famed sock designer Cookie A’s Sock Innovation has a handy guide for finding the right numbers to use for any heel turn.

If you’ve adjusted the heel flap for more or fewer stitches, you’ll need to adjust the number of stitches in the middle of the heel turn, between the decreased stitches. In our example, we’re adding 10 stitches to the overall pattern. The heel flap for this pattern is worked over an odd number of stitches, and it will be easiest to keep that odd number when adjusting for the heel flap. Let’s work the heel flap over 35 stitches, leaving 4 extra stitches on the instep than the pattern calls for. The original pattern says to slip the first stitch and then knit 15 stitches before working the ssk. Since we’ve added 6 stitches to the heel flap, we’ll add 3 stitches (half of 6) to this row: Sl 1, k18, ssk, k1, turn.

We’ll work the next row in parallel manner: Sl 1, p10 (six more than the four in the pattern), p2tog, p1, turn. At the end of this first short-row, we’ll have 7 stitches between the decreased stitches. Work the rest of the pattern for the heel flap as written. When you get to the gusset decreases, depending on the width of your foot, work the gusset until you have 70 stitches left; or work fewer decreases to accommodate a wider foot; or work more decreases for a narrower foot.

customizing socksBeyond the Heel

Once you’re past the heel flap, adjusting the socks to fit your feet becomes much easier. Higher arches and wider foot circumferences can be accommodated with more stitches: Work fewer gusset decreases to increase the amount of fabric going around the foot. Work more gusset decreases to fit a foot with a low arch or narrower foot circumference. The sole of the foot is the best place in a sock to fiddle with numbers— almost all sole patterns are worked in stockinette, and if a sock is worked with multiple colors, the sole pattern is usually simple (and very few people will likely notice if you diverge from the pattern on the bottom of the foot).

Socks are a great vehicle for practicing your knitting math. Knit 2″ to 3″ of the cuff and then take a good look at how the sock is working up. Do you like the pattern? Do you like the way the yarn is pooling? You can constantly try on socks as you knit them, thereby honing your skills at customizing patterns for your needs.


Ready to try customizing socks? Download the free Blackberry Jam pattern!

free pattern


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